Businesses try to coax Trump from tariffs brink, aides quarrel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump, after shocking markets with the risk of a global trade war, came under intense pressure on Friday from U.S. business interests and foreign trading partners to moderate his threat to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting where he announced that the United States will impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on imported aluminum at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump dispatched pro-tariff advisers Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro to TV news studios to defend his plan, while White House aides scrambled to downplay the prospect of a resignation by free trade advocate Gary Cohn, the top White House economic adviser, over the matter.

Cohn is part of a faction in Trump’s administration that warned the Republican president for months not to threaten the 25-percent steel and 10-percent aluminum tariffs that he pledged to impose in a chaotic announcement on Thursday.

There was speculation that Cohn, who told Trump the markets would slump on a tariffs threat, might step down as a result of Trump’s decision, but there was no indication of a such a move anytime soon, a senior White House official said.

“Gary was here yesterday afternoon, I talked to him in my office several times, so I don’t have any reason to think otherwise,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.

Turmoil inside the administration over trade came during one of the most hectic weeks of the Trump presidency, with confusion around the issue intensified by adviser Hope Hicks’ resignation on Wednesday and staff secretary Rob Porter’s on Feb. 7.

National Economic Council Director Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others for months had tried to steer Trump away from aggressive tariffs, but the president resisted their counsel, a senior administration official said.

Interviews with large trade associations, as well as lobbyists who represent companies in several industries, indicated back-channel discussions were underway, with companies trying to convince the White House and Commerce Department to include key exemptions in the coming official tariffs policy.

Industry groups want exemptions for imports from individual countries or for types of metals that cannot be found in the United States, the lobbyists said.

Companies that use cans for products like drinks or soup were among the most vocal opponents.

“Like most brewers, we are selling an increasing amount of our beers in aluminum cans and this action will cause aluminum prices to rise and is likely to lead to job losses across the beer industry,” said MillerCoors spokesman Colin Wheeler.

Can manufacturers plan to pressure lawmakers and administration officials next week.

“What Wilbur Ross doesn’t realize is that a few cents on 115 billion food and general line cans is a lot of money,” said Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington.


Trump’s attitude on tariffs should not come as a surprise, Commerce Secretary Ross said in a CNBC interview. “The president has been consistent all the way from his campaign days to the present about doing something big to protect steel and aluminum, so it should not have come as a shock,” Ross said.

A senior official at a major industry trade association, speaking on condition of anonymity, said businesses want to pull Trump back before he formally imposes tariffs next week.

“You’ll see a full-court press behind the scenes to try to get some, if not all, of the toothpaste back in the tube,” the official said.

“You can characterize the business community as being pessimistic about those chances given the dynamics in the White House right now,” the official added.

Trump said on Thursday his tariffs plan would safeguard American jobs in the face of cheaper foreign products and would be formally announced next week.

“When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, responding to Trump’s tweet,” wrote on Twitter, “There are no winners in global trade wars.”

Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, asked about Trump’s plans, told Fox News: “We have the lowest tariffs in the world ... and what do we get for that? We get a half-trillion dollar-a-year trade deficit.”

Stock indexes recouped some losses on Friday, but ended the week in the red as investors fretted over a possible global trade war.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington, Chris Prentice and Richa Naidu in New York and Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Will Dunham